MIND MELD: Which SF/F Books Have The Best and Worst Endings?

The lasting impression of a book is often conveyed by its ending, and that impression can be either good or bad. I remember finishing the lengthy Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton and still wishing there was more to read. That’s a great ending! Sadly, I also remember reading Hamilton’s otherwise excellent Night’s Dawn Trilogy and being disappointed by the deus ex machina finale of The Naked God. Great ending? Not so much.

I wasn’t the only one to be bothered by that particular title — as you’ll see when you read the responses we got when we asked people this question:

Q: Which science fiction or fantasy book has the best ending? Which one has the worst ending?

Note: Some of the answers may be spoilery, so read on…if you dare. And be sure to tell us your own picks!

Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Jayme Lynn Blaschke‘s fiction has appeared in Interzone and assorted anthologies. He’s the former fiction editor of RevolutionSF.com, and is currently the media director for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. A collected volume of his SF-themed interviews, Voices of Vision: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak, is available from the University of Nebraska Press. Blaschke lives in Texas and maintains a blog at http://jlbgibberish.blogspot.com as well as participates in the group blog No Fear of the Future at http://nofearofthefuture.blogspot.com/.

How do you really define “Best ending”? Is the best ending one in which the narrative relentlessly builds toward, one that’s inevitable and inescapable yet still provides a satisfying denouement? Or would “Best” be better defined by that unexpected twist, that out-of-left-field trump card that comes at the reader unawares, yet in hindsight seems a perfect–yet audacious–resolution to the story? Both are very different types of endings, appropriate to very different types of stories.

For the former, I offer Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day. Anyone who’s ever come within sniffing distance of the Arthurian legends knows good and well that fate has some nasty business in store for King Arthur and his son Mordred. Yet it’s to Stewart’s credit that the reader feels for both sides in this prototypical dysfunctional family squabble, and even as the narrative follows the traditional course of events in a surprisingly faithful manner the reader hopes against hope that Stewart will pull back at the last instant to offer a less bloody resolution. That she doesn’t makes the tragedy all the more poignant.

For the latter type of ending, consider Ken MacLeod’s Cassini Division. A tour de force of a space opera novel, things go to hell in the proverbial handbasket very, very quickly once all the various subplots come to a head. The fact that the communist protagonists (a clever bit of political commentary on MacLeod’s part, that) seem stripped of their only weapons serves to ramp the tension up to 11. When the rabbit is pulled out of the hat–as it is in spectacular fashion here–I literally leapt to my feet, pumping my fist and shouting “Yes!” I never saw it coming, but instantly recalled all the seemingly throwaway bits of detail and worldbuilding that turned out to be far more significant in retrospect. That the finale was both unexpected and justified is a fine sleight-of-hand on the author’s part.

On the other hand, fingering the worst ending is a much easier task. Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud caps off one of the most wretched, tedious plots in the history of science fiction with the most spectacularly awful pull-it-out-your-ass ending ever. Wandering off to find God is something you’d expect from the lead character in some self-important New Age memoir, not an all-powerful star-devouring cosmic entity. I ask you, would those classic Fantastic Four stories hold up as well if they saved Earth only because Galactus decided to abruptly take up navel-gazing? The fact that the Black Cloud itself is one of the single most brilliant science fictional speculations of all time merely serves to amplify the many literary sins of this truly abysmal “classic” of the genre.

Holly Black
Holly Black writes contemporary fantasy for teens and children. Her books include Tithe, Valiant, Ironside, and The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Endings are tough. The end is where the author must fulfill the promise of all the suspect choices and strange clues he or she created. Either those choices pay out or they don’t. The reader can trust all the way to the end, but at the end, that trust must be rewarded or the reader is going to throw that book across the room.

Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint is the book that taught me the most about endings. Despite being, as Michael Swanwick called him, “the boyfriend from hell,” Alec is one of my favorite characters. And I wanted him to make his dysfunctional relationship with Richard work. At the very end of the book, after a great deal of cleverness, Richard is alone and expects to stay that way when Alec comes in and says he’s brought them some fish. That’s it. We never get to see how Richard responds nor are we given any more reassurances. That’s it. The end.

And it is a perfect end. We know all we need to know and not one thing more. We are left with enough ambiguity and enough longing to walk away from the book just a little bit hungry.

Before Swordspoint, I thought endings were about tidying things up, but I think that restraint is just as important. I recently read Tana French’s In the Woods where one mystery is resolved and the other remains forever unresolvable. It doesn’t seem like that should work, but it works to great and haunting effect. It works better, I think, that two resolutions could have.

Another book whose ending I love is Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. Without spoiling too much, I hope, it uses and unreliable narrator to surprise the reader with an ending that sheds new light on the entire book. In a moment, everything shifts and becomes far more interesting and complicated. Which brought me a great deal of joy.

When I think of bad endings, I’m tempted to talk about the endings I was disappointed with: a great book that ends with a literal deus ex machina. Another ends with a romantic choice that put me off. Another has an ending which baffles me.* Those books are still wonderful and I still love them, because what I love about them is greater than an ending that doesn’t quite work for me.

Those aren’t bad endings.

Bad endings are the ones that do the reverse of what I talked about The Thief doing. They make everything shift in a meaningless way. They betray the reader’s trust. I remember reading this one book when I was a kid–I no longer recall the title, and I am completely willing to believe that I overlooked its genius or that I made up the plot of the book in my fevered child brain, but in the end, the main character died. I think he was run over by a cart. It turns out that he had a twin and his secret twin winds finishing the quest he was on and being the hero of the book.

I felt stupid. I felt toyed with. That’s a bad ending.

Bad endings seem to do one of two things and often do both. They fail to fulfill the promises made at the beginning of the book or they are the least (or much less) interesting of a series of choices.

Failing to fulfill the promise of the beginning is the most common reason I think an ending doesn’t work. Books that promise grit on page one and never deliver. Books that pull me in with cleverness or atmosphere and end with neither. Or books that wind up with romances that were never set up, murders that are performed out of the blue, or mysteries that are solved based on clues the reader couldn’t know. In those cases, the ending isn’t so much bad as seems to belong to a completely different book.

Whenever I’m reading, I can’t help but try and figure out what is going to happen next from the clues available. And if that ending is more interesting than the actual end of the book, then the author has made a disappointing choice. The reason why “it was all a dream” is a terrible ending is because it deflates whatever the stakes were and, also, because it’s boring. Maybe the worst endings of all are like that, the ones I can’t even remember because they’re just that dull.

[*Whatever books you are thinking I mean, I am almost sure you are wrong. ]

Mark Chadbourn
A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the author of eleven novels and one non-fiction book. His current fantasy sequence, Kingdom of the Serpent, continued with The Burning Man in April 2008. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, and working on a production line. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands.

Endings are the hardest thing to write. You have a thousand plates spinning, and not only do they all have to stop at the same time, they have to burst into flames, sing the National Anthem and promise you a night of good sex. Most writers can bring things to a reasonable conclusion, so there are very few truly bad endings, I think – just ones that don’t match expectations. And that’s the crux of it – for a good ending, the pay-off has to exceed the set-up. That’s why the movie ‘The Village’ was such a disappointment – it was totally back to front: excitement, scares, intrigue followed by a slow wind-down to dullness. A twist, in and of itself, is not an ending.

All my favourite greatest endings are outside the genre – Pincher Martin, Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath – but within the genre I would have to go with War of the Worlds. Familiarity kicks the stuffing out of surprising endings – we all know how the Martians get theirs. But I remember reading this as a ten-year-old and feeling honestly shocked. Super-powerful engines of destruction, the world winding down and then…! Wells’ poetic ending has become tired and clichéd to modern sensibilities. But for palates that aren’t jaded, it still does the trick.

Bad endings are more problematic. Few writers really drop the ball after a good book (and it has to be good to keep reading to the end). So I’m going to go with the most disappointing. My nominee would be Bag of Bones by Stephen King (and I’m considering supernatural horror as a subset of fantasy). King really doesn’t get the kudos he deserves for re-shaping the landscape of the fantastic thirty years ago. I found his early books invigorating, but then he hit a rough patch that lasted a long time. Bag of Bones was supposed to be the return to form, and for much of the novel it was. But that ending – I almost threw the book across the room because I felt so let down. It is, I’m sad to say, the literary equivalent of The Village.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is the author of more than 50 novels – primarily science fiction and fantasy, a number of short stories, and various technical and economic articles. His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest books are Natural Ordermage and Viewpoints Critical, a short-story collection.

When I was asked about this, I had to think, and I decided to take the simultaneously easy/hard way to reply because the best endings are all so unique to the books in question that comparing them is meaningless, at least for me, and the worst endings are all so similar that there’s no way that one could distinguish one from another.

What distinguishes a good ending for me is that it’s both unexpected in some fashion and yet, only in retrospect, appears to be the absolutely logical outgrowth of the events that preceded it. It should leave the reader both gaping and saying, “Of course, except I didn’t see it coming, but that really is the only way it could end.” Such an ending should also be bittersweet, in that the costs involved are higher than the character and the reader ever expected, and the knowledge that the character[s] obtained cost far more than they ever expected.

All the worst endings I’ve read share many of the following characteristics:

  • They’re incredibly one dimensional – all ends either wonderfully or awfully.
  • They’re male-sexist. Muscles and weapons triumph over everything, including common sense.
  • There’s either an extraordinarily high body-count, or no one of any consequence dies or suffers.
  • No one really learns anything.
  • The fate of the entire world or universe is always at stake.
  • Resolution is wish-fulfillment imposed by the author, rather than arising from the events in the book.

And does this mean that I’ve decided not to trash any specific author? Absolutely. Even some very good writers occasionally don’t publish their best…and there’s also the problem that, frankly, the reading public often rewards books with the “worse” endings [at least from my viewpoint] with greater sales, because they fulfill the “wish-fulfillment” desire of so many readers. And, although no one likes to admit it, writers do have to make a living, for which reason the books that critics and well-read readers often prefer are those works of an author with the lowest sales figures. That’s not always true, but it’s true often enough to be discouraging.

Matthew Sanborn Smith
Matthew Sanborn Smith is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose work has appeared in Chiaroscuro, Challenging Destiny and Albedo One. He is an occasional contributor to Antipodean SF and blogs at http://theonethousand.blogspot.com.

A more spoilery post could not be conceived. It’s been a long time since I’ve read these books, but in one way that makes the answer easier. These are the endings that have stuck with me for years.

I’ll start with the bad news. I’ve got to judge a bad ending by its incomprehensibility. William Gibson is one of my favorite authors and Bruce Sterling has written some great stuff but the ending of The Difference Engine looms forever as a giant question mark in my mind. The first two thirds of the book were wonderful, one of the only times I’ve enjoyed exploring a science fictional world for its own sake. As the book sank into its conspiracy/revolution phase my interest fell off. It just didn’t seem like the same mood flowed from the beginning and middle of the story into the end. I found the ending deeply dissatisfying. I’m not talking about the very end when the world computer achieves sentience, that was nice. I mean what came before that. Whatever came before that.

I think the talent behind this book raises the reader’s expectations and the last third of the book seems even worse for it. One expects the pharmaceutical fever-dreams of Philip K. Dick to collapse into themselves as they sprawl ever skyward. The reader receives a bonus if they don’t. But Gibson and Sterling? I wish I could be more specific but as I said it’s been a long time and I couldn’t absorb it properly the first time around. Perhaps I’m merely making a public declaration of my stupidity, but as a reader of speculative fiction for the last twenty-five years, I have surfed some byzantine plots in my time. I wiped out on this one.

As for the best, I’m torn between two novels. The first is Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. As are so many of her books, it’s stranglehold of a novel exploring oppression and control in which the reader, drawn in by Ms. Butler’s exceptional ability, scratches blindly for release in any form. Anyanwu is controlled by Doro throughout the book and over the centuries through fear for her descendants’ lives. In the end she becomes the master, enslaving Doro not by physical force, but by love and the threat of taking herself away from him. To me, the ending was a revelation. In my eyes Butler became the Anti-Gernsback, the Anti-Campbell. Her heroine won her freedom without weapons, political maneuvering, or arcane scientific knowledge. I used to wonder (and I’ll be the first to admit that this was blatantly sexist) if a male author could have written this ending as powerfully as she did. Now, I feel that the ending was uniquely Butlerian, unachievable by another author of either gender. Or should I say, considering Butler’s other works, any gender.

As for the second great ending, one of the bonuses of which I spoke can be found in Philip K. Dick’s The Zap Gun, a.k.a. Project Plowshare. I’m reminded of Ender’s Game in which the game is revealed to have been an actual war. In The Zap Gun the game is the ultimate weapon, leading to “a state of permanently induced psychotic withdrawal” for anyone who plays it. The Man in the Maze was a children’s toy containing a telepathic empathy circuit which caused the player to feel for the plight of a creature trapped in a maze with no escape. Crank up the power on that circuit and the player’s mind is trapped as well. Febbs went very quickly from worrying about the little man’s well-being to becoming the little man himself, frantically seeking escape from the walls all around him. Say what you will about the book as a whole, in just a couple of pages Febbs falling into The Man in the Maze game chilled me for a lifetime.

Paul Graham Raven
Paul Graham Raven does a ridiculous number of things, including publishing the near-future sf webzine Futurismic, developing and managing websites for various authors and agents in the genre field, and online public relations for the UK’s foremost boutique genre publishing house, PS Publishing. He also answers tedious and easily-Googled questions about Naval history at his day-job in a museum library, reviews sf novels and music by hirsute tattooed lunatics, and spews the contents of his brain and browser bookmarks onto the web at Velcro City Tourist Board.

The sf book with the best ending? Well, you can’t go wrong with a bit of Iain M Banks, and the ending of Player Of Games has a crescendo of tension that leads to a great finish; I’ll not blow the whistle on why in case you haven’t read it, and if you haven’t read it you really should. It’s probably the best introduction to Banksie’s Culture universe, and to Banksie’s wry style as well.

But if you want an awesome end to an awesome series, the books I would jump in front of a train for are Julian May’s criminally under-rated four-volume epic Saga Of Pliocine Exile. Multiple plot threads resolve, some sweet and some bitter, and there’s some serious sensawunda, just desserts and a soupçon of redemption. I understand that the series was a huge hit when first published (and had a very formative effect on my taste in books after a friend of my father’s recommended I read it), but I find the lack of retrospective interest it generates astonishingly sad. Don’t assume it’s like May’s later sf works (e.g. the execrable Perseus Spur books); Saga Of Pliocene Exile is a tour de force from start to end.

Now, the worst ending in science fiction. Before I pick, I’m going to blatantly reuse a joke made by Jonathan McCalmont about Neal Stephenson, where he said something along the lines of “… [h]is books don’t so much end as they–”

I can forgive Stephenson his abrupt endings because the rest of the books are sufficient pay-off. But I found it impossible to forgive Peter F. Hamilton when, after I’d slogged my way through the however-many-thousand pages of the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, he pulled a classic deus ex machina and had a big alien god wave a magic wand and fix everything. Absolutely infuriating … though in his defence, I think he’d written himself into a corner with no other route out.

Of course, you could say that all your favourite novels have the worst endings … because the best novels are the ones you wish would never end! ;)

Gail Z. Martin
Gail Z. Martin is the author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer fantasy adventure series, with The Summoner (2007), The Blood King (2008) and Dark Haven (2009). (See the series webiste at www.chroniclesofthenecromancer.com.) She’s also the host of Ghost in the Machine fantasy podcast.

Best Ending: I think J.K. Rowling did a great job of wrapping up the Harry Potter series with The Deathly Hallows. I was pleased that she ignored the people who seem to believe that if you don’t kill off enough main characters it’s not a real book and gave us a thoughtful, complex ending. I also liked the ending to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – it had the right touch of ambiguity given the rest of the novel.

“Worst” Ending: Let me qualify “worst” by saying that just because an ending didn’t meet my expectations of what I wanted to happen doesn’t make it a bad ending or a bad book – it just means it disappointed my expectations. With that disclaimer, I nominate two books, Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore and The Heir Apparent by Joel Rosenberg. I think Vector Prime was probably one of the last Star Wars novels I read because the characterizations were getting further and further from the way I saw the characters (a hazard in movie tie-in books). Vector Prime was a good example, with Leia acting like a real witch (can’t we have strong female characters who aren’t hysterical harpies?) and Han taking a soap opera turn into the bottle after Chewie’s death. I just didn’t buy into either reaction. I also understand that in a media tie-in series, the author doesn’t always have full control over plot elements, so maybe those elements were ordered by the boss. With The Heir Apparent, I felt that Karl Cullinane’s death happened a little too neatly. After all, this guy could fight his way out of everything, no matter how high the odds, until it’s time to die, and then he’s relatively easy to kill. It didn’t seem inevitable. Maybe I was just annoyed that Karl died, but I remember feeling like it should have taken more to bring him down. Or maybe that was Rosenberg’s point – that fate is capricious and the decorated war hero gets killed in a car accident on the way home from the airport. If so, I missed that nuance at the time. If we’re talking movies, don’t even get me started on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

James Bloomer
James Bloomer has a PhD in particle physics (he worked at CERN) and has probably forgotten more physics than most people ever learn. He writes software for a living, Science Fiction for his sanity and has been running the SF blog Big Dumb Object for 242 internet years.

Well, the best ending EVER! is a bit tricky, whilst I think about it here are three recent ones that come to mind.

Best ending: The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod. I can’t say anything about it without spoiling it. Just read it. It’s great. I was jumping up and down with a big grin, saying “Woah” repeatedly when I finished it. I also loved the ending to Brasyl, which made think lots, and got better the more I thought about it.

Worst ending: Matter by Iain M Banks. Left me thinking “Is that it?” Too sudden and abrupt.

Thinking back further…

  • The Affirmation by Christopher Priest has an ending that makes you want to read the book again immediately.
  • Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson has an ending that left me feeling like I wanted to go out and live life.
  • Use Of Weapons by Iain M Banks has a great horrible sad brilliant ending.
  • A Scanner Darkly has a good ending too, overcoming drug addled weirdness, which is no mean feat.

What’s interesting thinking about great endings is that they usually coincide with great books overall. Can you have a terrible book with a great ending? A great ending makes a good book magnificent.

I’m finding it hard to think of many bad endings, probably because I can’t remember them. Is a bad ending one you don’t remember a year later?!

Richard Novak
Richard Novak is a Christian, a poet, and author with several small press publications, including a poetry chapbook. He is a voracious reader and an avid fan of Doctor Who (all of them) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He also likes country music.

Best ending — I’d choose Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The resolution was totally unexpected, yet in considering what had gone before, made perfect sense. At the time it was written, Cold War-inspired doomsday scenarios were a dime a dozen. Confrontation with unknown enemy…enemy revealed…enemy overcome. Matheson followed the basic formula, then turned it completely around. Hope ran out for the lone, last chance for mankind. Still, he left you with a promise of hope that civilization would survive. Even Robert Neville’s final realization had a nobility. The fact that it was not the human, but the vampire, who won through didn’t matter; it seemed right.

Worst ending — K.A. Applegate’s Everworld series. She gets kudos for actually ending the series. Most go on and on and on…if not open-ended, at least long after the logical stopping point. Applegate’s premise was terrific, placing ordinary teenagers in unusual situations. Her Animorphs books were fairly entertaining, so I had high expectations of Everworld. Instead of alien slugs, you had Norse mythology. I love mythology.

The only drawback was the ending. Ms. Applegate likes to kill off her teen heroes. In Animorphs, this made some sense. The kids were doing what they had to do to stop a full-scale alien invasion. With Everworld, I didn’t get anything like that. The kids died in this other dimension. No apparent effect of the presence and interaction changed things. At the end of the day, I was left wondering “What’s the point?”

Jonathan McCalmont
Jonathan McCalmont lives in London where he teaches and writes. His criticism of books and films has been published in a number of different places and is usually linked to on his blog SF Diplomat. He has recently started a monthly SF column for Futurismic and is also in the process of setting up a site devoted to non-fictional and related works about SF.

This is genuinely quite a tricky question to answer as there are many different ways to gage an ending. Does one go for the most beautifully written? The most thematically appropriate? The most satisfying? It is not an easy decision to make. In fact, it’s practically arbitrary. For example, one ending I particularly enjoyed was that of Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm (2006), but this was simply because the book was incredibly long and tedious and getting to the end of it was like taking off a pair of ill-fitting shoes at the end of a particularly tiring day. But I doubt this was the kind of answer that would prove interesting to anyone so I’ll speak instead about the ending I most enjoyed.

Cocaine Nights (1996) is, like most of J.G. Ballard’s later fiction on the cusp of genre. The book is about a travel writer who goes to Spain when he learns that his brother is insistent upon pleading guilty to burning some people alive in their homes despite having no apparent motive for doing so. As the book progresses, the central character (a stand in for Ballard himself as usual) learns more and more about the Spanish coastal resort his brother lived in and how a charismatic psychopath is pushing back the boundaries of middle-class and middle-age entropy by introducing an element of unpredictability and cruelty into people’s otherwise sheltered lives. The book ends with the travel writer taking the rap for the sociopath for the good of the community. What is great about this ending is that it works both to underline and undermine the book’s themes.

On one hand, the writer’s submission to the psychopath’s agenda is meant to encourage ours. Like the plant in a snake oil salesman’s audience, we’re encouraged to buy into Ballard’s arguments because the main protagonist does. You want to believe that a few burglaries and the odd sexual assault are enough to make a community live again. However, on the other hand, the writer’s act of submission also emphasises how monstrous the psychopath’s plans really are; how can it be moral to send two innocent people to jail so that a psychopath can continue to torment a whole community? What’s the freedom of us all against the suffering of the few? As the punk band Crass once put it: “that’s the kind of self deception that killed ten million Jews / The same soapbox logic that all power-mongers use”. Many of Ballard’s later books revolve around the idea of brutality and fascism emerging from middle-class affluence, but none of them make that point as clearly and as powerfully as the ending of Cocaine Nights.

There is one type of ending that annoys me more than any other in genre writing. That is when the author uses the subject matter as a magic wand with which to make all the plot problems disappear. This can take a magical form such as in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies (1992) or Thud! (2005) where a character stumbles around in a magical haze until everything is sorted out. Alternately, it can take a technological form such as the temporal mechanics of Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon (2001) or his literal deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) at the end of the Night’s Dawn Trilogy. However, none of these is as preposterous as the ending of Xenocide (1991) from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series.

Speaker for the Dead (1986), the first of the grown up Ender novels, is a real pressure cooker as it serves mainly to lay social and moral problems upon the shoulders of Ender and his newly acquired family. The series actually gets quite claustrophobic as all throughout Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (2001), more and more problems appear with no solution in sight, effectively ratcheting up the pressure until it is almost unbearable. That is until someone invents a new kind of physics that allows some kids to build a starship in their backyard and step outside the universe, instantly inventing FTL, curing congenital OCD and solving all outstanding plot problems in the process. In effect, the book uses a bait and switch, suckering you into these detailed and complex social and moral situations only to then deploy utterly implausible physics to solve everything with the wave of a magic wand. Imagine if The Great Escape had ended with all the POWs revealing that they could just teleport themselves home and you’ll get a similar effect.

Kate Elliott
Kate Elliott is the author of the Crown of Stars fantasy series and the Jaran science fiction novels. Her most recent novels are Spirit Gate and Shadow Gate.Besides having her own blog, Kate is one of the co-bloggers at Deep Genre.

I have to qualify my answer by saying I don’t subscribe to a best/worst hierarchy. That is, I don’t believe in the One Best Composer (not even Beethoven!) or the One Worst Megalomaniacal Dictator school of Lists. Really, can’t we all just agree that those megalomaniacal dictators are all awful? In addition, I’ve read a lot of novels but don’t have them on hand to refresh my memory, so I’m working off the incomplete data set that passes as my memory.

An ending that really didn’t work for me? I think I have to go with the end of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, because although I quite liked the first two books and although I admire him for tackling such huge issues as good, evil, religion, and the revolt against God, the ending seemed very small and attenuated compared to the grandeur of what he attempted. Still, I respect him for trying.

An ending that really worked for me? Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads. She takes on the difficult task of interweaving three stories, separate in time but linked by the spirit of an African goddess. To over-simplify: the story of an enslaved woman I read as a tragedy; that of a mulatto courtesan in 19th Paris gripped me with its bittersweet realism, her struggles leavened by a scrap of hard-earned peace at the end. The third story involves the travels of a young prostitute and her comrade in the 4th c CE. Not only does Hopkinson pull this off as a comedy dealing in part with early Christianity (more satisfyingly than Pullman, now that I think of it), but she ends the entire novel with an episode from this point of view.

Why do I love the end of this novel? Because the last three words struck me as perfect. Taken alone, they’re just three ordinary words, but the way and where Hopkinson deploys them allows them to encompass a deeper and more comprehensive meaning that ties up the entire novel. Most importantly, they’re really funny. I like a novel whose ending makes me laugh, and I mean that in the best possible and most respectful way.

Jay Tomio
Jay Tomio is a co-owner of Fantasybookspot.com and editor of Heliotrope. In his spare time he fascinates on the utility of the spork

When given topics like this I automatically find myself thinking of my early encounters with the fantastic; those childhood traumas that perhaps don’t exclusively owe to the deft of the writer, but work in tandem with the first expansions of our wonder, crossing and rewriting our imaginary boundaries. We remember them all but we carry these landmarks as standards. The term ‘stylist’ is a reviewer-adjective, one that on the surface makes sense, but really has no – cannot – have uniform definition, it just sounds appropriate for some writers, past and present: Valente, Ducornet, Peake among others. My own use is to describe those that have a lyrical quality, and the first time I noticed my head bobbing was when I abruptly stopped. So much of fantasy of this mode leans on an understood and rather juvenile ‘right to rule’ and Mckillip shows us the rites to rule and Harpist in the Wind completed Mckillip’s epic-riddle. From westernized fairy tale beginnings to true tragedy and loss, Patricia Mckillip brought music back to the fantasy trilogy and the song ends when we truly meet deth. Very few writers tap into this, even the best do so in brilliant moderation – The Rains of Castamere in a Frey Hall, Isaac’s knowledge of Lin’s nature to know – but when The Harpist in the Wind ends it feels like some maestra pulled the needle from the record, and even with more contemporary examples that attempt to catch a beat, something seems lost. We often know that a book supposed to have some amount of gravitas before we read it, but the Harpist’s fate stands as one of the times that it was experienced without foreknowledge and thus has stuck with me and why I consider the series one of the standards in an overly crowded sub-genre.

A more recent book that comes to mind is The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker. When we are given series, particularly the traditional trilogy, we have an unfortunate broad expectation of what each chapter entails. The third chapter will put our protagonist through the ringer, it offers the light at the end of tunnel, and as readers we just wait to see what we have to go through to reach that safety. Sure Frodo has wounds he will never heal from, but Sam got busy with Rosie good enough for thirteen kids, and was undoubtedly getting that public office action on the side (elected mayor seven times). Bakker offers the reader no remorse. Indeed, he glorifies in the opposite, taking a substantial risk in a form that’s business plan doesn’t generally allow for such chances. Bakker successfully gave us a second chapter as a third chapter and when an ‘epic fantasy’ infuriates you upon its conclusion, you tread a most unique path. The third stanza isn’t sunshine and songbirds, it’s not some impossible idea of thematic balance – it’s not fair at all, and it looks like it’s only getting worse and Bakker’s choice not to succumb to romantic trite and not make it simple novelty is exceptional.

When it comes to the most lackluster endings, I want to say the end of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night Dawn Trilogy lingers with me. That said, it still remained one of the great examples of Space Operas and doesn’t seem to deserve the slight to be in the company of The Gates of Dawn by Robert Newcomb. It is akin to a minor miracle that I still read anything having read the first two books by Newcomb. I actually feel a bit guilty highlighting the end of the book as the entire novel, indeed the first two novels in their entirety are perhaps the worst examples of the fantastic produced by major publishing in my lifetime. He essentially builds up an all powerful antagonist who pulls a Webber and loses on a technicality – a Wile E. Coyote but not funny. The principle protagonists literally (and I use that word loosely in any form in the wake of Newcomb) could have taken the book off.

I challenge my fellow mind melders to read his first two books to get a sense of the bravery necessary – Lasciate ogne speranza, voi Ch’in rate – to still be here after such an experience and dare you to pick another to sit on its throne!

Mike Glyer
Mike Glyer writes the science fiction fan newszine File 770. Links to PDF copies of the zine can be found on Mike’s blog, at File770.com. In 2008 both Mike Glyer and his wife Diana Pavlac Glyer were nominated for Hugo awards: File 770 for Best Fanzine and The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community for Best Related Book.

What is the worst ending to a work of fantasy? Some would agree that my nominee, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, has an awful ending. They might not agree that the novel belongs in a discussion of fantasy. But Twain requires the legend of King Arthur and his knights for a foundation, so what else?

I actually greatly enjoy Connecticut Yankee, the 19th century novel about a shop foreman who is knocked out by en employee and wakes near King Arthur’s Camelot. He rapidly becomes the power behind the throne, all the while dispensing a constant stream of satirical insights about magic, warrior knights and the aristocracy. He frustrates every one of Merlin’s intrigues against him and crows: “Somehow, every time the magic of fol-de-rol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of fol-de-rol got left.” Merlin is a phony, and examples of his “magic” (like Sir Sagramore’s protective veil) are laughable.

That’s what makes the ending of the novel hard to take. Contradicting his own premises, Twain writes that Merlin, disguised as an old crone, succeeds at putting The Boss under a sleep lasting 13 centuries, so that he wakes back in his own time. I scratch my head: if magic isn’t bunk after all, the Merlin we’ve been reading about for the previous 400 pages doesn’t make sense. Boo!

Twain did need to return the teller of this tale to the 19th century, of course. A reader is free to guess that maybe the narrator is crazy, hallucinating, concussed, having a dream…Certainly that would have been worse, if Twain had written the “it was only a dream” ending.

Maybe that was the best he could do under the circumstances. After all, Twain never belonged to a writing group like the Inklings, the people who saved J.R.R. Tolkien from ruining my favorite ending to a fantasy story, from Lord of the Rings. I’m completely satisfied that when Sam Gamgee returns from the Grey Havens, the epic ends with the line:

“He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

If that is out of tune with the heroic language in which the rest of Lord of the Rings is written, it’s a contrast that works well. Sam’s mundane greeting shows that he feels released from adventuring to enjoy the life he longed for and closes the story better than many more words could have done. Which we know, because Tolkien wrote those many more words.

Christopher Tolkien published two versions of the intended Epilogue in volume 9 of The History of Middle-Earth, that vast collection of his father’s variant manuscripts. He believed his father’s added glimpses of the Gamgee family and descendants were not mere afterthoughts but his preferred ending. However, as my wife Diana Glyer notes in The Company They Keep, J.R.R. Tolkien explained in a letter that the added lines were “universally condemned.” So I thank the Inklings, or whoever else was responsible, for persuading Tolkien to choose the ending I like most in any work of fantasy.

14 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Which SF/F Books Have The Best and Worst Endings?”

  1. This has nothing to do with endings. I just wanted to second Mr. Raven’s praise for Julian May’s Pliocine Exile series. It is epic, it is wondrous, it is magnificent and it is worthy of much more appreciation than it gets. Go find it. Go read it.

  2. Odd that Ender’s Game is mentioned a few times here. EG is one of the few books, SFy or not, that I literally finished the book, was awed, turned over the book, and began reading again. The ending was that good. It hasn’t happened since. (I have re-read Mystic River three times but, since it isn’t SF, I won’t count it here.)

    But, on the topic of endings, I really love the book that leaves until the last sentence the final zinger. Granted, these following books are not SF but it fits with fantastic endings.

    -Branded Woman by Wade Miller (Hard Case Crime)

    -The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom

  3. I think it’s interesting how hard it is to even define what a bad ending is beyond “something that did not satisfy me”. Which of course largely leaves it up to personal preference.

    L.E. Modesitt makes an excellent point regarding the way that what is popular and what is “good” may not be the same thing.

    Though I think the multiple mentions of Nights Dawn says something about that particular ending.

  4. I agree with Scott – Ender’s Game has to be one of the best endings in any book I have ever read, SF or otherwise. However, the end of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway was also really good!

  5. Great endings: Stardust and Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman; Needful Things, and “Strawberry Spring,” by Stephen King; The Child Across the Sky by Jonathan Carroll.

    Not-so-good: The Stand and The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King; just about anything else by Jonathan Carroll.

  6. Am I going to get shot for this?

    SPOILER: The worst ending I can think of is the ending of The Witch Queen. After three books of angst, the heroine (if you can call her that) ends her problems by killing herself, either figuratively or literally. (The ending is somewhat ambiguous in this regard.) I detest this ending.

    Really good endings are the ones that you keep thinking about and mulling over days later–endings that don’t actually end the story, but don’t leave it hanging off a cliff either.

  7. One of the best endings I’ve read in a long time has to be Brian Aldiss’ Starship. I almost fell out of my chair when he sprung the twist. You go through the book knowing that they’re in a generation starship, so I wasn’t expecting an unusual ending, just an interesting one that made sense. What Aldiss gave us however, was so much more.

  8. I wanted to offer another word of thanks for the praise for Julian May’s Pliocene Saga, and recommend also the Milieu followup series – it puts everything into a nice perspective, and her characters are just wonderful.

    The entire series is hugely unappreciated, and seeing as it’s one of my favorite ones ever, that saddens me.

  9. One of the worst ending I’ve read was in the book:A Dark Imbalance Evergence, Book Three by Sean Williams and Shane Dix.

  10. Having been an obsessive reader of science fiction & fantasy for over fifty years, it must say something about this topic that I have forgotten more endings than I remember. That said, I must agree w/ Novak about “I Am Legend”; a stunning climax. In addition I would vote for Pohl’s “Gateway”, McIntyre’s “Dreamsnake”, Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” and a short story; “Metamorphosite” by Eric Frank Russell. On the other end, I found “Xenocide” to be a terrible letdown following “Speaker for the Dead” (which brought me to tears), and “Matter” was the least satisfying of Bank’s Culture stories. I’m certain there were others, but, as I said, I’ve forgotten them.

  11. The worst fantasy trilogy ending of all time: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. I doubt that anyone will care that this is a spoiler, but here goes: the girl turns into a TREE! Horrible, horrible ending. It’s not a good book, but the ending takes it into depths of awfulness.

    A runner-up is a trilogy that not many people I know have read: the Darkangel trilogy of Meredith Pierce. Another spoiler is ahead. Great volume one, great volume two–very disappointing ending to volume three, in which the heroine turns into–no, not a tree–a machine. Gosh. Even a very attractive and god-like machine is a huge let-down.

  12. Awful endings: Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. When Runciter finds a Joe Chip coin in the last line, it destroys everything in the last 100 pages.

    Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Maybe I’m just too dumb to understand that ending.

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